Breggin now lives in the Finger Lakes Region of Central New York and practices psychiatry in Ithaca, New York.
Breggin graduated from Harvard College in 1958 then attended Case Western Reserve Medical School. His postgraduate training in psychiatry began with an internship year of mixed medicine and psychiatry at the State University of New York Upstate Medical University in Syracuse. Breggin completed a first year of psychiatric residency at Harvard's Massachusetts Mental Health Center in Boston, where he was a teaching fellow at Harvard Medical School, and finished his final two years of psychiatric residency at SUNY. This was followed by a two-year staff appointment to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), where he worked to build and staff mental health centers and education. Breggin has taught at several universities, obtaining faculty appointments to the Washington School of Psychiatry, the Johns Hopkins University Department of Counseling, and the George Mason University Institute for Conflict Analysis and Resolution. Breggin has worked in a private practice since 1968.
As an undergraduate Breggin had volunteered at the state mental hospital, leading the volunteer programme and co-authoring a book 'College students in a mental hospital'. He recalls at the age of 18 witnessing electroconvulsive therapy being practiced then in the 'shock room' and finding it barbaric. After becoming a psychiatrist in the early 70s, he also campaigned against any return of the crude brain procedure known as lobotomy. Breggin reports that he was threatened and insulted with psychiatric terms at a meeting of the American Psychiatric Association in 1972 and won damages for libel and slander by leading ECT advocate Leo Alexander.
Breggin is a life member of the American Psychiatric Association and an editor for several scientific journals. His opinions have been portrayed both favorably and unfavorably in the media, including Time magazine and The New York Times. He has appeared as a guest on many radio and television shows, including 60 Minutes, 20/20, Nightline, and numerous network news reports.
He now runs The Center for the Study of Empathic Therapy, Education and Living, a 501(c) organization.
Since 1964, Breggin has published on his major topic of interest, clinical psychopharmacology. He wrote dozens of other articles, several book chapters, and more than twenty books. Many of Breggin's more recent articles are published in the peer-reviewed journal he co-founded with David Cohen and Steven Baldwin, Ethical Human Psychology and Psychiatry, and in The International Journal of Risk and Safety in Medicine as well as in other scientific journals such as Primary Psychiatry (2006), and the Journal of Humanistic Psychology (2000). Breggin wrote his first peer-reviewed articles in the arena of psychopharmacology in 1964 and 1965. Many of his published articles discuss psychiatric medication, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) drug approval process, the evaluation of clinical trials, and the ethics of psychiatric practice. According to the Web of Science, Breggin's work has been cited by more than 700 publications, with an h-index of 20.
Breggin published one science fiction novel, After The Good War: A Love Story, in 1972. It has a strong proportion of psychiatric subject matter.
A large portion of Breggin's work concentrates on the negative side effects of psychiatric medications, arguing that the harmful side effects typically outweigh any benefit. Breggin also argues that psychosocial interventions are almost always superior in treating mental illness. He has argued against psychoactive drugs, electroshock (ECT), psychosurgery, coercive involuntary treatment, and biological theories of psychiatry.
According to Breggin, the pharmaceutical industry propagates disinformation that is accepted by unsuspecting doctors, saying "the psychiatrist accepts the bad science that establishes the existence of all these mental diseases in the first place. From there it's just a walk down the street to all the drugs as remedies." He points out problems with conflicts-of-interest (such as the financial relationships between drug companies, researchers, and the American Psychiatric Association). Breggin states psychiatric drugs, "... are all, every class of them, highly dangerous". He asserts: "If neuroleptics were used to treat anyone other than mental patients, they would have been banned a long time ago. If their use wasn't supported by powerful interest groups, such as the pharmaceutical industry and organized psychiatry, they would be rarely used at all. Meanwhile, the neuroleptics have produced the worst epidemic of neurological disease in history. At the least, their use should be severely curtailed."
In his book, Reclaiming Our Children, he calls for the ethical treatment of children. Breggin argues that the mistreatment of children is a national (U.S.) tragedy, including psychiatric diagnoses and prescription of drugs for children whose needs were not otherwise met. He especially objects to prescribing psychiatric medications to children, arguing that it distracts from their real needs in the family and schools, and is potentially harmful to their developing brains and nervous systems.
The New York Times has labeled Breggin as the nation's best-known Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) critic. As early as 1991 he sardonically coined the acronym DADD, stating, "... most so-called ADHD children are not receiving sufficient attention from their fathers who are separated from the family, too preoccupied with work and other things, or otherwise impaired in their ability to parent. In many cases the appropriate diagnosis is Dad Attention Deficit Disorder (DADD)". Breggin has written two books specifically on the topic entitled, Talking Back to Ritalin and The Ritalin Factbook. In these books he has made controversial claims, such as "Ritalin 'works' by producing malfunctions in the brain rather than by improving brain function. This is the only way it works".
Together with Fred Baughman, Breggin testified about ADHD to the United States Congress. In Congress Breggin claimed "that there were no scientific studies validating ADHD", that children diagnosed with ADHD needed "discipline and better instruction" rather than psychiatric drugs, and that therapeutic stimulants "are the most addictive drugs known in medicine today." Baughman and Breggin were also the major critics in a PBS Frontline TV series about ADHD entitled 'Medicating Kids'.
Breggin has been very critical of psychologist Russell Barkley's work on ADHD, claiming that he exaggerates the benefits of stimulants and minimizes their hazards.
In the early 1990s Breggin suggested there were problems with the methodology in the research of SSRI antidepressants. As early as 1991 in Talking Back to Prozac, he warned that Prozac was causing violence, suicide and mania. Breggin elaborated on this theme in many subsequent books and articles about newer antidepressants. In 2005, the FDA began requiring black box warnings on SSRIs, warning of an association between SSRI use and suicidal behavior in children, and later extended it to young adults. New general warnings were added along with the aforementioned black box warnings. These warnings confirmed many of the adverse effects first emphasized by Breggin in Toxic Psychiatry with specific mentions by the FDA of drug-induced "hostility", "irritability", and "mania". In 2006, the FDA expanded the warnings to include adults taking Paxil, which is associated with a higher risk of suicidal behavior as compared to a placebo.
In 1994, Breggin said that Eli Lilly and Company (maker of the antidepressant Prozac) attempted to discredit him and his book Talking Back to Prozac by linking him to the Church of Scientology and labeling his views as "Neo-Scientology". Breggin denied any connection to Scientology. Breggin later clarified that he was still in agreement with some of CCHR's anti-psychiatric views, supporting Tom Cruise's public stance against psychiatry.
Breggin has written several books and scientific articles critical of electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). He claims "... the damage produces delirium so severe that patients can't fully experience depression or other higher mental functions during the several weeks after electroshock." He was one of nineteen speakers at the 1985 NIH Consensus Development Conference on ECT. The Consensus panel (of which Breggin was not a member) found that ECT could be a useful therapy in some carefully defined cases.
Breggin testified as an expert witness in the Wesbecker case (Fentress et al., 1994), a lawsuit against Eli Lilly, makers of Prozac. Ultimately, the jury found for Eli Lilly. According to Breggin, this was because the plaintiffs and defendants had secretly settled behind closed doors. The Supreme Court of Kentucky concluded that the Wesbecker trial had been secretly settled by Eli Lilly before going to the jury in return for defendants presenting a weakened case that was bound to lose. Trial Judge Potter was empowered by the Kentucky Supreme Court to change the verdict from a jury verdict in favor of Eli Lilly to "settled with prejudice" by Eli Lilly.
In South Carolina, Breggin testified on behalf of Peggy S. Salters, a psychiatric nurse who sued her doctors and Palmetto Baptist Hospital in Columbia after ECT left her incapacitated in 2000. A jury found in favor of her and awarded her $635,177 in actual damages.
In 2002, Breggin was hired as an expert witness by a survivor of the Columbine High School massacre in a case against the makers of an anti-depressant drug. In his report, Breggin noted that "... Eric Harris was suffering from a substance induced (Luvox-induced) mood disorder with depressive and manic features that had reached a psychotic level of violence and suicide. Absent persistent exposure to Luvox, Eric Harris probably would not have committed violence and suicide." However, the argument was rejected by the judge, and the lawsuit was eventually dropped with the stipulation that the makers of Luvox donate $10,000 to the American Cancer Society.
On September 16, 2011, in Winnipeg, Canada, a provincial judge cited Breggin's testimony in concluding that Prozac caused a sixteen-year-old boy to knife a friend to death, noting that, "Dr. Breggin's explanation of the effect Prozac was having on C.J.P.'s behavior both before that day and in committing an impulsive, inexplicable violent act that day corresponds with the evidence." About the boy, Judge Robert Heinrichs determined, "His basic normalcy now further confirms he no longer poses a risk of violence to anyone and that his mental deterioration and resulting violence would not have taken place without exposure to Prozac."
On November 20, 2012, a New York State Supreme Court jury awarded $1.5 million malpractice verdict to the family of a man who committed suicide while taking psychiatric drugs, including antidepressants. Dr. Breggin was the expert witness for the family.
In 1987, National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) brought a complaint against Breggin with licensure board of the State of Maryland. NAMI was upset about remarks he made on The Oprah Winfrey Show on April 2, 1987. On the TV show, Breggin stated that mental health clients should judge their clinicians in terms of their empathy and support; if they failed to show interest in them and tried to prescribe drugs during the first session, he advised such clients to seek assistance elsewhere. He also pointed out the iatrogenic effects of neuroleptic drugs. He was defended by a diverse group of psychiatrists and others who defended his right to publicly state his critical opinion. Breggin was cleared of any wrongdoing by the Maryland medical board. Time has noted that other mental health professionals worry that "Breggin reinforces the myth that mental illness is not real, that you wouldn't be ill if you'd pull yourself up by the bootstraps...his views stop people from getting treatment. They could cost a life."